Book Review: Jewellery in the Age of Victoria

Today’s book review comes from one of my favorite people. I continue to be an admirer of her research and writing skills, and was extra pleased when she agreed to write this review for us. Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an independent scholar and co-author of the forthcoming book Paris: Life and Luxury in the Eighteenth Century (Getty Publications, May 2011) She previously reviewed Accessories to Modernity for Worn Through:

Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria: A Mirror to the World

By Charlotte Gere and Judy Rudoe

(British Museum Press, 2010)

Book Review by Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Although Queen Victoria is often dismissed as dowdy and matronly, she had an insatiable appetite for jewelry, and, when it came to bling, she was a trendsetter. Victoria’s taste for tortoiseshell probably saved the industry, and her predilection for tiaras made them the must-have female headdress. The queen’s prolonged and conspicuous mourning for her husband, Prince Albert, “set standards of etiquette that could only be satisfied by the purchase of specific clothes, jewellery and personal accessories” (125). The fact that Victoria’s “domestic circumstances so closely matched those of her subjects had an impact on jewellery and popular taste in general” (17). The layered etiquette and symbolism of Victorian jewelry gets the royal treatment in the gorgeous new book Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria: A Mirror to the World

The reference to the Victorian “age” in the title is deliberately vague, both geographically and temporally. The book covers Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States as well as the United Kingdom and spans the period the period 1830 to 1901, stopping just short of Art Nouveau. It was an age in which modernity and historicism, science and nature warred for cultural supremacy, a battle reflected in fashion and ornament. “In a period of accelerating social and economic change, outward signs of wealth and respectability assumed great significance,” write the authors, the eminent decorative arts curators and historians Charlotte Gere and Judy Rudoe, who each contribute thematic chapters on topics such as jewelry and fashion, archeology, tourism, historic revivals, sports, and international exhibitions (82).

The authors use the queen herself as a case study, very effectively. In photos and portraits of Victoria, the story of her life and times can be read in her accumulated jewels and ornaments, which referenced important dates, milestones, and people in her 64-year reign. “The novelty of a young, female sovereign” and the ease with which the many portraits and photographs of her could be reproduced meant that the public was intimately familiar with the queen’s jewels, and her fashion sense in general (15).

The queen mingled priceless gems with personal mementoes of purely sentimental value–a practice she shared with her subjects. Most Victorian women received serious jewels as part of their trousseaux; these “often served their owner for life, only trinkets and memorial pieces being added later” (103). Despite having access to the crown jewels, Victoria felt that “sentiment . . . was the most important attribute of jewellery” (14) Sometimes that sentiment turned morbid. The queen wore an eerie enameled brooch depicting her infant daughter as an angel, earrings mounted with her children’s baby teeth, and a pendant miniature of her deceased husband, which she was known to hold up so he could “see” things.

Yet Victoria’s macabre mementoes and mourning ornaments lose some of their ghoulishness when viewed alongside contemporary examples of exquisite jewelry made of stag’s teeth, insects or human hair. While the hair of the dead was often fashioned into memorial jewelry, intricate hairwork could also be a sentimental souvenir of a (living) loved one. The royal jeweler, Garrard’s, kept locks of the queen’s hair on hand for the purpose of making such keepsakes (165). Even jet was worn outside of mourning. Conversely, everyday pieces had special meaning in the context of mourning; pearl necklaces, for example, represented tears.

Though long, Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria is compulsively readable. The book’s ambitious scope is matched by the quality of the research (much of it new) and the quantity of images (many of them previously unpublished). It offers a fresh and surprising look at iconic Victorian ornaments like cameos, lockets, and hairwork, while serving as a useful reference tool for identifying more obscure trends and objects. The narrative is unobtrusively interspersed with specialist information about individual designers, case-makers, labels, and marks. Not just the illustrations but the descriptive text and captions make it a worthwhile investment for collectors, curators, and historians, though non-specialist readers will enjoy it, too.

Nonetheless, there are a few missed opportunities here. The authors refer to several objects, paintings, and other images not included in the book; other paintings are shown as details only. Most of the American material is post-1876, and rather sparse considering the importance of the U.S. market for fine European jewelry. All of the major jewelers of the period are mentioned in passing, but with a few exceptions (such as Castellani) they are not accorded detailed discussion; a biographical index would have been helpful, along with more information on the mechanics of buying and selling.

The authors’ preface boasts “a new approach to the subject”: not a chronology, not a catalogue of masterpieces, nor even of a single collection, but a cultural history of Victorian jewelry (7). While this approach is largely successful, the subject is perhaps too unwieldy to be contained in a single tome, even one of 552 pages. The book ends so abruptly–and arbitrarily–that one is left with the impression of a collection of discrete essays rather than a focused study intended to be read from start to finish. It may be unrealistic to expect the authors to tie up an investigation of such breadth and depth in a neat conclusion, but I wish they had tried; after thirty years of research, these formidable scholars must have come to some fascinating conclusions of their own.

Further Reading

Shirley Bury, Sentimental Jewellery (London: Stationery Office Books, 1986)

Penelope Byrde, Nineteenth-Century Fashion (London: Batsford, 1992)

Charlotte Gere, John Culme, Garrard: Crown Jewellers for 150 Years (London: Quartet Books, 1994)

Charlotte Gere, Geoffrey C. Munn, Pre-Raphaelite to Arts and Crafts Jewellery (London: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1999)

Alison Gernsheim, Victorian and Edwardian Fashion: A Photographic Survey (New York: Dover, 1982)

Clare Phillips, Jewels and Jewellery (London: V&A Publications, 2000)

Marcia Pointon, Brilliant Effects: A Cultural History of Gem Stones and Jewellery (London: Yale University Press, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2010)

Diana Scarisbrick, Scottish Jewellery: A Victorian Passion (Milan: 5 Continents, 2009)

Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion: Clothes of Princess Charlotte of Wales and Queen Victoria, 1796-1901 (London: Museum of London, 1997)

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